Flash floods submerge 90% of Iran: Could the devastation have been avoided?

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By Luisa Meneghetti

Exceptional floods

“They asked us to evacuate. But nobody said where to evacuate to,” one of the hundreds of thousands of people impacted by the massive flash floods that have swept through Iran since the end of March said to the BBC.

Half a million people have been displaced at the peak of the disaster. 

Starting in the northern province of Golestan and moving to the South and the West of the country, heavy rains have poured over twenty-eight of the thirty-one provinces of Iran. Almost the whole country was under water.

These flash floods are the worst disaster impacting the country in over fifteen years, according to the Iranian Red Crescent. A striking example of the magnitude of this disaster is the province of Golestan, which received approximately 70% of its annual rainfall in 24 hours, something that had not been seen in over three centuries.

Delayed rescue attempts

“Nobody’s coming to rescue us. We’re stuck on the rooftop,” said another resident to the BBC

Photos of entire families stranded on top of their buildings keep popping up in the media. Most of them have spent days waiting for rescue teams to reach them, with little food and few warm clothes to keep them going. Those who had a charged mobile phone filmed the situation, indelible proof of the dire conditions they were in.

As of early April, the most severely hit provinces were Golestan, Lorestan and the oil-rich province of Khuzestan. As the impact spread to more than 2,000 towns and villages affecting over ten million people in both rural and urban centres, relief efforts began. The Iranian Red Crescent was among the first responders and managed to provide shelter to the displaced, as well as food and other essential items. However, government authorities in charge of the relief efforts have been heavily criticised for a delayed response, as the disaster happened during the Iranian New Year holiday, when many public offices were closed

A systemic failure

One of the most criticised aspects of the handling of this disaster so far has been the planned redirection of floodwaters towards populated areas, as well as the release of emergency discharge waters toward farms and crops to avoid a major overflow of reservoirs and dams. Heated protests have been flaring up against these interventions. In Khuzestan, the population accused the authorities of prioritising the protection of oil infrastructure at the expense of farms and crops, which represent the main livelihood for most of the affected people. Authorities denied the claim.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif turned to the current US sanctions imposed on the country as the main reason why the response has been hampered. Economic restrictions mean that there are shortages of specialised equipment, such as rescue helicopters, according to authorities. 

While it is undeniable that some extent of the damage and losses could have been prevented, it is also true that the unusual and unexpected situation caught population and water management authorities by surprise. These floods arrived after a long drought and swiftly covered most of the territory of Iran. Some environmental experts point at the rampant deforestation among the causes of the disaster. Mostly unregulated, deforestation has been practiced in the forest of the North for decades in the same territories where the flash floods first occurred. Moreover, ongoing urbanisation, especially the construction of buildings and homes near riverbeds, as well as the proliferation of dams, should be included in the list of causes. As environmental scientist Kaveh Madani laments, “It’s sad to see people going through all these problems that we could have avoided, had we planned for this situation.”

Lessons learned?

While the magnitude of the losses are still being assessed - it will likely take a long time for a truly comprehensive review of the impact of these floods on all sectors – it already appears that the damages top 2.5 billion US dollars. Despite the promise of the government to repay for the impact of the floods on housing and livelihoods, increasingly larger groups of the affected population have little trust left in the institutions. Should the authorities not be able to manage the post-emergency recovery, they will likely have to confront a surge of protests, as has already occurred in Khuzestan province.

This disaster highlights that it is often a combination of many different factors that lead to the highest losses. The ability to manage an appropriate response and prepare for disasters triggered by natural hazards relies on the collective efforts of different sectors, from urban planning to civil engineering, from the local authorities up to the central government. 

Two months after the onset of the emergency, official data shows that around 269,000 people are still displaced, but what is left for them now that they have lost their farms and houses, that begs another question.

Last week at the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, the UN and member states, including a delegation from Iran, stepped up commitments to address and mitigate systemic risks. These risks occur when interlocked systems fail, with impacts cascading across sectors, regions and communities. According to the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mami Mizutori; “A critical, fundamental and urgent re-examination of how we deal with risk is needed. The past is not a sufficient indicator for the future. An interconnected approach is required to address systemic risks supported by multi-hazard and multidisciplinary risk assessment.”

If these floods are an indication of our current capacity to address systemic risks, we clearly have a long way to go.

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